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Biology, purpose, and pantheism

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Despite protestations from prominent evolutionists, teleology (purpose) is central to understanding biology. But does this mean that organisms were designed by some external agent? There are evolutionists who agree that life is full of purpose, but that purpose comes from the very fabric of the universe itself, so that there’s no need for an external designer. Eugene Y. from Malaysia writes:

How would you recommend Nature Institute? As the website explain they hold to a Goethean approach, seeing Nature whole. They wrote in their publications and articles as seeing an organism-centered view which is contrary to a DNA-centered view in shaping the organism's biology. Organisms shape the organisms. I like this new view because it tries to explain biology in a new way but with discernment I cautioned myself. They don't claim to be part of an ID proponent but argue like one. They don't deny Evolution but speak of the "Wisdom' as the mechanism which they observed in Nature.

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

We share two broad concerns with this group: we also believe that an organism-centric view of biology is the best approach, and we believe that purpose is an integral part of any accurate account of biology. These two concerns set us at odds with the 'mechanical' approach to biology most evolutionists use, just as it does for the Nature Institute.

Creation is not intrinsically mechanistic; it just appears that way because it seeks to answer the materialist in his own terms.

Nonetheless, Nature Institute is critical of any sort of design/creation approach to biology. Why? They make a fundamental distinction between two types of purpose—'natural' and 'designed' purpose. Think of it like Tarzan building a hammock out of vines. Vines don't naturally form hammocks; Tarzan has to manipulate them from outside to conform them to such a shape—this is 'design'. But the vines themselves have a natural inclination to grow and draw nutrients from the soil to produce leaves and fruit. A vine is just being a vine when it does these things; it's not being manipulated from outside for some other purpose it doesn't inherently have. Nonetheless, the vine doesn't just do anything; it's intrinsically inclined toward certain ends and not others—this is 'natural purpose'. The difference is between external imposition (the hammock made out of vines) and natural inclination (the vine that grows is just doing its natural thing). When we look at the approach of Nature Institute, it is clear that they think the creation approach to biology posits an external agent imposing on matter a purpose alien to its natural way of being when bringing life into existence, like Tarzan building a hammock from vines. As such, they see the divine creation paradigm as a 'mechanistic' approach to biology, similar to the materialistic approach of evolution.

But this is a false impression. Creation is not intrinsically mechanistic; it just appears that way because it seeks to answer the materialist in his own terms. Just because Intelligent Design proponents and creationists talk of biological structures in mechanistic terms in the context of the creation/evolution debate doesn't mean that we reduce organisms to being merely the sum of their mechanical parts.

Think of it like this: we can model the brain as a computer. Now, we believe that the brain is more than a computer, but that doesn't make the comparison completely invalid. The comparison may help us understand a lot about how the brain works, but it is imperfect. If we are right that the brain is not just an organic computer, then we can expect the computer model of brain function to break down at some point. But the analogy still helps us understand the brain better, even if only in negative terms (i.e. the brain is not like a computer in xyz ways).

Pantheism says: 'I don't exist, and I am God.' To say it is to refute it. The Christian notion, on the other hand, is perfectly logical: I exist, and I am not God, but God made me.

As such, we can appreciate Nature Institute's emphasis on the intrinsic goal-directedness of life … to an extent. If organisms (and the wider created world) have intrinsic tendencies toward certain ends and not others, then the created world has causal integrity in itself (e.g. when a rock breaks a window, the rock is a genuine cause for the broken window because of what a rock naturally is, and the event is not merely an occasion for God to break the window). Nonetheless, while the Christian theist should be at pains to stress that the created world has causal integrity in itself, and thus a real ontological distinction from God (i.e. the creation is not God nor a part of God), we cannot say that the created world has a causal sufficiency of itself. Why? This would be to say that the created world can exist and persist independently of God, which explicitly contradicts Scripture (Hebrews 1:3) and contradicts God's self-sufficiency and omnipotence. In other words, nature is not an end in itself. Nonetheless, it's also wrong to conclude that God is just an external agent that imposes His will on passive matter, because that assumes that passive matter is itself a given. The Christian position is that neither the matter nor the form of the world is a given, but that only God is. In other words, God purposed and produced all things from nothing, purely by the power of His perfectly free will (Genesis 1:1, John 1:3, Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 11:3). Moreover, Christians have classically said that God must concur with the specific operations of the causal structure of the created world in order for them to obtain. In other words, God and creatures are both genuine causes that ‘agree’ in bringing about an effect. If either cause is absent, then the effect will not happen. As such, nature has an intrinsic causal structure, but it can’t do anything apart from God's will.

What happens, then, if we take this notion of intrinsic purpose in all things to the extreme? Pantheism; 'God' becomes equated with the purpose in the world, and thus with the world itself. And the Nature Institute, especially as it takes its cues from writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Rudolf Steiner, and Owen Barfield, certainly has pantheistic tendencies: "Nature around us is whole and interconnected. Though we are part of nature, we do not yet fathom her depths, and our actions do not embody her wisdom [emphases added]."1 However, pantheism is just atheism by another name. And like atheism, it can give no account of the reality of personhood or morality. In one sense, it's even worse than atheism because in pantheism the very notion of 'different things' is an illusion, since it posits that all is God. Pantheism says: 'I don't exist, and I am God.' To say it is to refute it. The Christian notion, on the other hand, is perfectly logical: I exist, and I am not God, but God made me.

Probably the most obvious fruit of this philosophy in their thinking about biology is their avoidance of the origin of life. If organisms are intrinsically purposive, but do not receive such intrinsic purpose from a God who creates from nothing, then how could life have a beginning? Aristotle, who also believed in 'intrinsic teleology' in life, got around this issue by saying that the world was eternal, and life had always been there (for more on this, please see Abandon YEC and reconcile the Bible to evolution? Thomas Aquinas taught a young earth and 24–hour creation days). This isn't an option for the modern 'intrinsic teleologist' because there are strong biblical, scientific, and philosophical reasons to believe that the earth and the universe had an absolute beginning. The materialist faces these issues head on by trying to find some non-teleological mechanism by which life can arise from non-living materials, but this option isn't available to the 'intrinsic teleologist'. All that is available to them to explain the origin of life is some sort of spontaneous generation, but historically speaking this is little different from a mechanistic account of abiogenesis, and the fact is that all the evidence we have is against abiogenesis (see Origin of life for more information). If there is some sort of intrinsic 'life-directedness' principle in the universe, we've never seen it give rise to life where there was none before.

At the end of the day, some of their specific emphases are similar to our own, but they arise from a radically different worldview. Biblical creation has crucial theological and scientific strengths in the places where 'intrinsic teleology' fails as an ultimate explanation for life. As with the ID movement, some of what they say is useful, but it needs to be used carefully and critically, sorting out the wheat from the chaff. For a better and more biblical account of the origin of teleology in life, please see By Design.

Published: 17 October 2015

References and notes

  1. About us, The Nature Institute, natureinstitute.org/about/index.htm, accessed 5 October 2015.  Return to text.

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